This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Art and Life of Harvey Dinnerstein

Brooklyn artist Harvey Dinnerstein has been painting portraits since the 1960s, focusing largely on the diversity of races and urban sub-cultures found in the polyglot city of New York. From his earliest days as a painter Dinnerstein has been a steadfast realist, even though abstract art was all the rage in the era and the place where he began his career. Brought up in a working class community with left wing family politics, Dinnerstein is drawn to painting characters from struggle street, but stylistically he is regarded as a resolute conservative. Now entering his eighties, this book is the first retrospective on Dinnerstein seen for 30 years.

The book "Underground Together: The Art and Life of Harvey Dinnerstein" starts with some informative biographical chapters on Dinnerstein, before moving to an enjoyable survey of his oil paintings, sketches and pastels. Dinnerstein frequently studies and admires great masterpieces on the walls of New York’s marvellous museums, but I think the authors of this retrospective go too far in conflating his work with the old masters he admires. Dinnerstein’s brushwork does look familiar, but I think that is because he paints in a style common to other realists born in the 20th century. His portrayals of people have an unshakeable element of caricature and some of his colours have the uniformity and intensity of “from the tube” paint. Technically and stylistically he is very good, but he is neither supremely masterful nor unique.

What makes Dinnerstein distinctive as an artist is his pick of subject matter. Unlike some other portrait artists, he has neither sought nor been consumed by commissions from business leaders and elite families. Dinnerstein selects unlikely subjects from the back streets of New York and leans towards African Americans, orthodox Jews, bearded musicians, scarfed migrants, sloppy students and latter-day hippies. Modelling in his studio, these candid figures look back from the paintings towards the viewer with suspicious, weary, or intense stares. The paintings are sympathetic, albeit idealised portrayals. While the subjects are arranged without posturing and airs, all the characters have some natural poise and pride about them. Dinnerstein has some feeling for the spirit of these people.

Dinnerstein’s most ambitious works are streetscapes. At times he has thrown himself into allegorical crowd scenes in an attempt to be political, but unfortunately these attempts come off looking contrived and camp. Far more engrossing are his melancholy depictions of ordinary life, like commuters slumped inside stuffy subway carriages, or navigating the city by bus, or wandering the streets through rain and cold. Artists are often at their best when they perceptively convey the grittiness and mayhem of their times. Dinnerstein is an exemplar of an artist who has had his eyes open to the changes in American life, while other artists have cocooned themselves in abstract, expressionist, or fantasy worlds.

The book reproduces the artworks at a good size. Included among the many plates of finished paintings are additional images of sketches, grey tonal underpaintings on canvas and photographs of the artist at work balancing brushes and mahl stick. It is gratifying to find that Dinnerstein has provided a few paragraphs of background for some of the featured paintings, to explain where he scouted out his subjects, what fired his interest, or how he set about staging the composition.

I think his most memorable works are his paintings of people riding the New York subway, so it seems fitting that the book is titled Underground Together. Until now Dinnerstein’s work has been little known outside New York (his profile has been "underground" in a sense), although this book will now bring greater exposure to this unfashionable traditionalist. I bought this new release from on the strength of the coverart, knowing nothing of the artist, with total disregard for the old maxim about books and their covers. I am pleased with this impulse buy.

Book specs:
Hardcover 208 pages, 12.2 x 9.3 inches, numerous colour illustrations

Other books on portraiture: (not related to Dinnerstein)

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